Alice in Wonderland, by Louis Carroll, is one of my favorite children stories. With a cast of odd and colorful characters the tale becomes a linguistic conundrum by turning logic on it’s head. A playful desecration of all that is rational, the story is a brain teasing adventure for some who have a penchant for most anything philosophical. And so when I read a quote about Alice from G.K. Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy, ideas on the topic of humility started to surface. Right about now, you’re thinking, so what does Alice in Wonderland have to do with Christian humility? Well, follow me down the rabbit hole and I promise you, the whole thing will eventually all make perfect sense.
In his book Orthodoxy, Chesterton speaks about the virtue of true humility. He contrasts it to what he calls “mild rational modesty (humility)”. He writes:
“…mild rational modesty does not cleanse the soul with fire and make it clear like crystal; it does not (like a strict and searching humility) make a man as a little child, who can sit at the feet of the grass. It does not make him look up and see marvels; for Alice must grow small if she is to be Alice in Wonderland.”
Chesterton compares a person who thinks of him or herself as one who characterizes mild rational modesty, which is to say a temperate mind with a reserved disposition, with a person whose character is honed by the strict and searching inner eye of genuine humility. The mild and rational kind of humility is self-assessed and self-regulated. It is the kind of mild rationalism where everything in the world operates in a natural, logical manner, and though it all is or potentially explainable it is nevertheless wonder-less. This kind of humility is but a mask and therefore no humility at all. Rationalism is its measuring rod and its value is sourced on human introspection and intellect. This may make for an outward appearance of humility but the heart remains passionless. The mind is dull to wonder.
For instance, the non-Christian scientist can look at the universe and say Wow, what a marvelous and wonderful thing, but he reassures himself what he cannot explain now will be explained soon enough by science. Real wonder and genuine marveling do not exist in the so-called humility of a mild rationalist. It can’t. Why? Because, for them, anything miraculous only has the appearance of being miraculous; sooner or later our ignorance, they say, will give way to the light of rational, logical explanations. You see, for some, we are not amazed by what we can’t explain only amazed that we have not yet explained it. This, according to Chesterton, is not genuine soul-searing humility, but mild rational modesty. What the bible more poignantly calls pride.
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) commenting on genuine humility says:
“Nothing sets a person so much out of the devil’s reach as humility, and so prepares the mind for true divine light without darkness, and so clears the eye to look on things as they truly are.”
Here enters Chesterton’s Alice metaphor. A humility which is childlike. A sort of innocence which renders oneself vulnerable and honest upon penetrating introspection. Now we are not talking about how the average person of today might define humility. We are not talking about a shy or timid type of person, though they may characterize true Christian humility. We are talking about the Biblical definition of humility, which is not defining humility as a personality trait, but as a moral disposition of one’s soul. A humble person, in the biblical sense, is a person who sees himself truly as a lowly, dependent creature in light of an all glorious and powerful Creator God. If, for example, I were a speck of dust at the bottom of the Grand Canyon I might look up and say How vast and magnificent you are! If a vapor among the oceans of the earth I might say How little a puff I am in the flood of your mighty waves! We would feel small against the backdrop of something so large.
In Chesterton’s quote, he points to the soul-scorching work of humility which burns away human pride, arrogance, and intellectual snobbery. Soul-fired humility makes a person childlike in his or her innocence towards God and His world. I use the word innocence, but not in the sense of being guiltless nor ignorant. But as a child, in the imaginative sense, who is constantly curious and in amazement of the world. Childlike humility causes him or her to believe in the impossible and be in wonder of his or her world. As Chesterton points out, without genuine humility pride cannot see marvels. And therefore, the proud individual suffers from a deficient lack of wonder. He or she would never stoop to the heart of a child in innocent wonder, they would rather stand as a towering rationalist; priding themselves that they now know why and how the pill bug (roly poly) rolls into a ball instead of just watching in wonder the miracle of the moment. And as Chesterton would have us imagine; the proud are more comfortable polishing their leather dress shoes than taking them off and sitting like a child barefoot on the grass. In short, pride blinds a person to any sense of wonder, something a child does all day long. Chesterton ends with these thought provoking words: “for Alice must grow small if she is to be Alice in Wonderland.”
There is something of value to our faith which can be learned here: As long as we make ourselves large in our own eyes we block our view of heaven. God knows that unless human pride is burned away in the bonfire of humility there is no way we will see God nor enter into his kingdom. According to Jesus the prerequisite for entering heaven was to become like a child. This, however, is not to say we are to be childish in our ways, for that is foolishness (Proverbs 22:15), but to be childlike. Such were the words of the Savior,
“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Luke 18:17 ESV
Chesterton was right. Unless Alice had become small she could never have entered Wonderland. And unless we become small, meaning humble hearted with a low view of self, we cannot enter the Kingdom of God. Could it be the bigger we get the less amazed we are at the things of God and the more we are taken up with ourselves? The Kingdom of God was not made for the haughty or proud of spirit. But for the poor in spirit. It is they who have the certainty of entering God’s Kingdom. Again, it is Jesus who said,
“Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of God.” Matthew 5:3 ESV
The poor in spirit are the humble of heart. They need no applause, they need not be noticed. However, they are not doormats but their inner soul and outward disposition is tempered by the strength of God. They see themselves as they truly are, lovingly dependent on God’s mercy and grace and bankrupt within themselves. They know they are stripped, laid bare and thus poor in spirit, devoid of self-righteous acclaim and self-exalting pride. It is hearts like these that are of small and humble sight who will be privy to the magnificent glories of God’s heaven. Because they have been taught by humility these Christ followers are always amazed by the wonder and miracle of God’s heaven.
Millenia before Chesterton used Alice’s smallness for a lesson in humility, Jesus spoke of humility by putting in front of his followers, on two occasions, a small child. Both were for reasons of addressing sinful pride.
On one occasion the apostles were arguing about who would be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven, and Jesus
calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:2-4 ESV
I would have liked to have seen the look on their faces. Probably a lot like my own-puzzlement. We must become childlike: humble, transparent, vulnerable, trusting, inquisitive, but most of all God-adoring. And this most blessed of Christian virtues can only be forged in the hot cauldron of humility by the hammer of Christ’s cross.
On a different occasion, again the Lord presented a child for a living lesson on humility. The episode begins In chapter 18 in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus tells a story of two men who went to the temple to pray. One was proud, esteeming himself before God. The other man was penitent and humble seeking God’s mercy. Jesus summed up the story of the two men by giving his hearers this lesson:
“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 18:14b ESV
Luke then proceeds to tie this story as told by Jesus with what happens next- a real human life experience. The disciples had become annoyed with people desiring the Lord to touch their infant children (Luke 18:15). Jesus replied to his disciples:
“Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Luke 18:16-17 ESV
Had the disciples not learned the lesson Jesus taught about the proud and humble man just a few moments earlier? We should not be too shocked. We all suffer from the sin of pride. Yes, inflated ego’s are hard to burst. Only the nails from Christ’s cross can puncture them. That is perhaps why the sin of pride is first on the list of sins God hates (Proverbs 6:16-19). It is what found it’s way into the heart of Satan when he desired to be worshiped and exalted above God (Ezekiel 28:16-17, Luke 4:5-7). It was the reason our first parents fell in the garden; it wasn’t good enough that they were created in God’s image they had been duped into believing they could be like God himself (Genesis 3:5-6). They forgot they were children of His and so forfeited the playground of Eden.
Why does God hate pride? Because it keeps us from seeing Him. It turns our focus inward instead of upward. It blinds us to the glory and beauty of the Lord. If we are going to have glimpses of heaven and enter into God’s presence, we must become small. We must see ourselves as we truly are; small in comparison to the Creator who inhabits eternity (Isaiah 57:15). An eagerness for childlike humility must burn down the edifices of pride and self worship, so that our eyes will be cleared to see the wonders of heaven here and now.
Chesterton was right, Alice must grow small if she is to be Alice in wonderland. And Jesus made it crystal clear: the childlike, small heart of humility is the one who will enter the Lord’s big marvelous heaven.
I close with this thoughtful observation from G.K.Chesterton:
“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”― G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
1- Jonathan Edwards. The Works of, Volume 1- Thoughts on the Revival: Undiscerned Spiritual Pride. pg. 399
© copyright Steve Covarrubias August 2015